Having so many descriptive terms is actually great, in that it allows us, as consumers, to quickly read a package and instantly know if that particular product is right for us. This is a good thing, and the trend toward more descriptive labeling is helping us, as consumer, to make informed choices when we purchase.
That may be wonderful news, but what does it all mean?
Let's start with the basics. "Health Foods" or "Healthy Foods" are foods that we are all seeking to eat, because we ALL want to experience good health. But what defines healthy? Not only may the answer differ for each of us, the term "Health Foods" does not refer to anything in particular. The significance of this is that any food or health and beauty product may market itself as ‘healthy.' Therefore, it is a meaningless term. There are no set criteria in place defining ‘healthy.' Not all foods within a health food store are healthy for all consumers. Some might even argue that a few items are not healthy for ANYONE!
That brings us to the next term: "Natural." A natural product, according to definition, is not artificial. If it is 100% natural, then the product completely lacks any artificial ingredients. Artificial ingredients are those synthesized chemically, and not in nature; they are ‘man-made.'
This is a slippery slope! Manufacturers know this, and may often state that the product is ‘derived from natural sources' or that it ‘contains no synthetic ingredients'. Some synthetic, artificial ingredients are made from substances found in nature! So the consumer must be aware that ‘natural' does not mean as much as we might have hoped. It is not as meaningless as ‘healthy', but it does not tell us that much at all.
That brings us to the term organic. Unlike products using the descriptive words 'natural' or ‘healthy', manufacturers seeking to have a product branded as "USDA Organic" must meet federal guidelines set forth by the USDA, though certification is carried out by federally licenced inspectors. Organic products may include foods, health & beauty products, supplements, animal-derived or meat products, and even textiles.
So, ‘Organic' actually means something! "100% Organic" products are just that- made from ingredients that are exclusively organic. Products stating "USDA Organic" without "100% Organic" means the products are made from at least 95% organic ingredients.
Organic means that an agricultural product is certified to be grown, processed, and even distributed, in a particular manner. Organic farming methods are not new; researchers here in the US and abroad have studied organic farming processes for decades. Contrary to popular belief, organic farming and processing methods are a well-studied science with a growing body of knowledge. Organic farming and production are not a step back into the past, but rather a directed scientific effort aimed at ecologically-sound scientific progress.
Organic farming is based on the concept of maintaining soil fertility, without the use of toxic synthetic chemicals in the form of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Organically produced agricultural products must also be free of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and irradiation. Without the Certified Organic label, a product's ingredients may have been grown using any or all of the methods mentioned above. And the finished product is free of preservatives, artificial food flavors and colors, and anything else that is synthetic.
Does it matter? Organic products have been found to have far fewer chemical contaminants, and may contain higher levels of phytochemicals, including antioxidants. (Phytochemicals are chemicals found in plants. Many of these chemicals are beneficial to humans and other life forms, helping to promote health. One such type are the class of antioxidants, chemical that help keep our bodies young and free of decay.)
The USDA Organic label protects us, as anyone knowingly misleading a consumer by stating that a non certified organic product is actually organic is liable to pay a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation. So, the USDA Organic Certification really gives teeth to the rules!!
If a product is grown without the use of pesticides, but other chemical fertilizers are used, then the label will often state "Pesticide Free" This term does not require any sort of certification, and is a self-disclosure made about the product by the manufacturer.
Some products are not organic for some reason or other, but are not made from any Generically Modified Ingredients. Manufacturers of such products will often design the product packaging to state, "GMO Free." That mean that none of the ingredients are GMOs. A GMO, or Generically Modified Ingredient, is a living plant or animal that has had it's DNA altered in ways other than through traditional breeding and grower selection.
For thousands of years, we humans have performed the role of selectively saving and growing seeds. We picked the strongest, highest yielding, meatiest, and brightest plants with the most flavor. Those were the seeds that we saved. But these new processes take genes, the basic instruction set of all cells, and move them around from one species to another. Some question the safety of this practice.
Moving right along, the next term appearing on many new products is "Vegetarian " Does this mean the product is made exclusively of vegetables? No. It simply means the product is free of meat and meat products including fat and lard. A vegetarian product may still contain dairy products such as milk or butter, as well as eggs.
"Vegan" products are free of ALL animal-derived ingredients, and can be trusted to not contain any eggs, milk, or other dairy ingredients. Most vegans will not eat, wear, or use any products made from animals.
Some people choose to eat an organic or vegetarian diet for health reasons, while others choose to eat this way for ethical, social, or even spiritual and religious reasons.
"Contains No Animal Ingredients" is often found on cosmetics, shampoo, and other health and beauty products. It means that the product is free of any ingredient derived from an animal.
"Not Tested on Animals" sometimes appears on health and beauty products. This means that data for product suitability, including allergenic potential, was obtained in ways other than by the use of animal experimentation.
"Free Range" animal products come from farm animals that are raised in a setting where the animals are able to graze, or roam freely. This contrasts sharply with ‘factory farming' methods focused on high production. THE USDA *strictly* regulates chicken, however chicken EGGS are entirely UNREGULATED!! only. All other animal products bearing the label "Free Range" are not regulated in the same manner as chickens, as there are no specific definitions. Instead, farmers must produce documentation proving that the farm is somehow "Free Range."
"Grass-Fed," "Humanely Raised," and "Pasture-Raised" also refers to animals, and are practically synonymous with the term "Free Range"though actually a distinct category, also regulated by the USDA.. It simply means that an animal is permitted to graze, as opposed to eating a formulated scientific diet at a feed station.
"Hormone Free" and "rbST Free" refer to diary products that do not contain rbST, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, otherwise known as "bST", "bGH," as well as the trade name "Posilac". Some choose to avoid this hormone in their diets.
"Wheat-Free" or "Gluten-Free" are other phrases that we see a lot. These simply mean that the product is free of wheat and wheat-derived ingredients. Why would anyone care, you might wonder? Some people have Celiac Disease, a problem with digestion making it impossible for them to comfortably digest the protein component of wheat, referred to as ‘gluten.'
"Whole Grains" are cereal grains that haven't had the bran and germ removed. Refined grains have had the bran and germ removed. The brand and germ are full of fiber, as well as vitamins and plant nutrients.
"Unbleached Flour" is flour that has not been chemically bleached. Bleaching makes a whiter, more visually appealing product, and helps the starch to set better. But bleaching requires caustic chemicals, which may remain in trace amounts in the finished product.
Some products now state that "This product was manufacturers in a plant that also processes peanuts and cashews." This is because some people are so very allergic to nuts, or wheat, or even shellfish, that even a trace amount on a product can cause a fatal reaction!!
For various health reasons, some people avoid salt, or sodium. Products labelled "No Salt Added" may still have sodium. The consumer must check the label! Product ingredients may have their own salt, naturally.
"Sodium-Free" means that the product doesn't contain any sodium, added or otherwise.
And "Low-Sodium" means a product is not overflowing with sodium. But how much is ‘low?' That isn't something that anyone must agree on. But generally, a product is deemed low sodium if other similar products have higher amounts of sodium. It may also be the case that NONE of the type of product being sold EVER has sodium, not just that particular brand.
"No Preservatives" means that a product doesn't contain any chemical preservatives. It may, however, contain Vitamin C or E, or other natural antioxidants, as they also prevent spoilage.
"Fat Free" means a food product contains no fat. It may contain high amounts of sugar, though. "Fat Free" products must have fewer than a half gram of fat per serving, and is regulated by law.
"Low-Fat," "Lite" "Diet Food", and "Dietetic Food" refer to foods or drinks containing less fat per serving than comparable products. Products bearing the label "low fat" cannot have more than 3 grams of fat per serving, also by law.
"Low Carbs," "Net Carbs," and Low Calorie" refer to foods that have lower levels of carbohydrates. The AtkinsTM and South Beach DietTM are both high protein, low-carb diets.
"Sugar Free" means a product contains no sugar. It may contain artificial sweeteners, or natural non-sugar sweeteners, such as Stevia, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar, but calorie- free.
A new term is "Trans-Fat Free." New York City has even outlawed trans-fats in restaurants! Why?
Trans fats are unsaturated fat with trans isomer fatty acid(s), and may be either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. They are also a known health risk, helping to promote coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and more. Avoiding trans fats is a good idea. : )
"Lactose-Free" is usually a term describing dairy products, which would ordinarily contain lactose. Sometimes a vegan or vegetarian product will have this term on it's label, especially if the dairy-free product is an imitation of a real dairy product like milk or cheese or butter.
Finally, we conclude with the big ‘K'. No, not the store! Did you ever wonder what the ‘K- D' on many package means? Here's a hint: it isn't knockdown or Kuwaiti Dinar! It means that a product is "Kosher Dairy."
Kosher foods preparation rules and practice trace their ancestry to the ancient biblical account of Moses receiving the Law. ‘These include many specific rules for dealing with both vegetables and meats, which keep cleanliness and humaneness in mind.
Unlike the USDA Organic label, many different symbols exist designating Kosher foods, each corresponding to a different certifying authority, each headed by a different Rabbinic Administrator. Usually, but not always, the Kosher symbol will be a "K".
"Kosher-Dairy" means that the product either contains dairy, or was processed on machinery, or even in a plant, that sometimes also processes dairy products. Some products that may not have any dairy ingredients on the label may yet have a trace amount of milk or other dairy product because such products share part of the manufacturing process. In these instances, the K-D symbol will tell you even more about the product than the label itself. A product designated Kosher, but not Kosher Dairy, or K-D, is almost certainly not going to have a trace of dairy in it.
"Kosher for Passover" is another term on food packaging. This simply means that the item has been approved as meeting the stricter food preparation guidelines in place for the duration of Pesach, or Passover.
And, anyone may eat Kosher foods, not just those of the Jewish faith!
I hope that after reading this Guide, that you know a little more about all the little labels on our food and other personal care products, and which terms are meaningful, and which are not.